Interview of author Tom Collins

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I have always written, but until I retired from business, my writing was confined to sales materials, articles in trade publications, the company’s blog, etc.  The first piece I published was as a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the 1960s. The article was published in the Oklahoma CPA, and its title was “Sufficient Competent Evidential Matter.”

This desire to write is a bit odd for me because I am dyslexic. When I’m writing, using a computer of course, any two-letter or three-letter word will substitute for the one I intended—“of” becomes “or” for example. I often type one word thinking I am typing another. When I go back to review the text I’ve typed, I frequently find that there are missing words, because the words that I wrote in my mind, never made it from the brain to the typing fingers—touch method, I might add, thanks to typing class in high school. The written garbage must be cleaned up and not by me. Thus, I never release anything in writing that has not been edited by someone else first.

 

Have you ever let any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?

Yes, my newest book was two years in the making. It has many twists and turns as a result. There were numerous times when I didn’t know where to take the story. I had a message I wanted to convey and had to build a story to get it across.

 

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

All of them, except the last one. Each book you write is better than the previous one. You are a better writer. I wish I could rewrite by first book at the current skill level. That goes for book number two, three, four, etc.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

Just do it!  Recently during a book signing event, a beautiful eighty-year old woman asked me if I thought it was too late for her to start writing. I said, “Of course not—you just have to write faster.” In fact, I believe there’s an advantage to writing later in life—experience. The drawback is that you have less time to build a body of work.

Do your novels carry a message?

Yes, however, the story comes first. For example, a number of my mysteries are told with a law office serving as the canvas for the stories. Because of my business background, I try to inject real life business issues typically faced by law firms into the stories and the sound management concepts for handling those situations

Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?

There are already five books in the Mark Rollins adventure series, and collectively they would work well as a TV series. One book was a candidate for the movies; however, nothing has come of it to date.  That book is The Claret Murders. It is a fictional mystery that takes place during the real life 500-year flood of Nashville, Tennessee.

Although most books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but in your stories, are they really all fictional and made up?

Of course not. However, there is no one-to-one relationship. My characters are built on the pieces of real people I have known or observed. In one of my stories an attorney is gun down in Nashville’s Printers Alley. I created the character as a composite of three well-known Nashville attorneys. I thought I had cleverly disguised the men who I modeled the character on, but while doing a reading at a book club, one of the members nailed it—naming the three men. In a way, I took it as a compliment.

One of the fun things I have started doing at book signing events is offering those attending a chance to have a character named after them. The winner is selected in a random drawing at the end of the book signing event.

 

Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?

My wife complains that there is too much of me in the character Mark Rollins. Make no mistake, Rollins is a fictional character, but what makes for realistic fiction is a dollop of realism. Rollins is my main actor, and it was natural for me to build him on a framework I knew well. Thus, he lives in the surrounding where I live. He frequents the same restaurants. He likes the same food, drinks the same wine, etc., and that makes it much easier for me to write stories that ring true.

Fiction or non-fiction? Which is easier?

Fiction by far. When you write fiction, you are painting on a blank canvas with words. With non-fiction you must paint within the lines. You must be correct with non-fiction. With fiction you create your own reality. With fiction, you can create a car that flies without the need to ever refuel if it fits your purpose. If you are writing non-fiction, you are restricted to the limitations of the vehicle, the laws of gravity, and the fuel it requires.

Do you Blog?

Yes, today my blog is located on my official author website, tomcollinsauthor.com. My blog is also available at goodreads.com, Amazon’s Tom Collins author’s page, and often reposted on Linkedin.com and my twitter page, tom collins@i65north. I’m sure there are other places as well.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer, or longhand?

I work in my home office usually with a small fan running to block any distracting noise from other parts of the house. I do all my writing on a notebook computer using Microsoft Word. I took a typing class in high school sixty years ago as a crip course. I never imagined that it would be important to me. But, of course, it has because I can type as fast as I can think using the touch system. There is an automatic connection between my brain and my fingers. Working on the computer means that I have immediate access to the internet for quick research. Spell check helps get the initial kinks out of the text, and I have seamless access to thesaurus and dictionaries.

What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?

Dialogue. I find writing dialogue easier than descriptive text – which is probably because of the stage work I did in my younger years. I visualize my characters (actors if you will) as they perform in the book. I think I often fall short of filling out the descriptive part of a story through text. Is the character tall, short, fat, strong, weak? Is he or she hot, mad, afraid, etc.? I often let the dialogue convey those aspects without my adding more color to the work. Sometimes that falls short, and my editors send me back to the manuscript to add descriptive enrichment to the character, place, or emotions at play.

How realistic are your books?

I particularly like the disclaimer that my lawyers came up with. It has been on the copyright page of every one of my fiction novels: “This is a work of fiction. While some of the names, character, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and some are real, the events depicted herein are entirely factious and should not be considered real or factual.” That is a completely accurate description of my books. They deal with real places, real events, and conditions to tell a fictional story. The Claret Murders uses the real life Nashville flood as its canvas. Diversion uses the opioid crisis as the backdrop for its story.

Are there any books that you are currently reading and why?

I’m reading Anne Hillerman’s books. She is the daughter of Tony Hillerman, who wrote wonderful books set in the four corners of the southwest. His mysteries occurred on the Navajo nation grounds with a big dose of tribal lore and custom. Tony Hillerman’s books were a series with recurrent main characters, chiefly Sergeant Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo police force. With her father’s passing, Anne Hillerman is trying to continue the series but with her own twist.  She added Officer Bernadette Manuelito the main player giving the books a more feminine or nurturing quality. The combination of recurring characters and places are the very qualities I hope I create in the Mark Rollins adventure series.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

No. However, I didn’t start writing novels until I retired from the commercial world. I started my career as a CPA but quickly moved into the corporate world. I was considered one of the pioneers of the information technology industry, and I was involved in a number of corporate ventures involving technology. My last corporate venture was Juris, Inc, a company that developed software for law firms. I sold Juris in 2007 and since then, I have written six books and two smaller pieces. I loved what I was doing in the business world. However, now that I have changed careers, I love my new career as an author. I just wish I could have started sooner.

Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy, how true is that?

I will say that you have to be able to support yourself as a writer, because very few people can achieve a level of success as a writer that supports them. I used to say, to be a successful writer you need to be famous or get arrested. There is a great joke about an author who goes into a bar. The bartender asks him, “Have you sold anything lately?” The author answers — “yes, the car and the TV.” You can’t write to become wealthy. That may happen, but it probably will not. You have to write because you want to. What will make you a success is that you write what people what to read. That is hard.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

Enormous. There are many authors now publishing e-books only. The royalties bigger and books get to market faster. Nevertheless, for most of us, we want our books in print as well as e-books. I want my books in hard cover. If as I do, you enjoy pressing the flesh with fans, and signing copies of your books, you want your book in hardcover. But the e-books and trade paperbacks are what most readers are going to buy today. More and more people are reading digital books that they can read immediately without waiting for a printed copy to arrive in the mail. Nor do many want a printed book once they have read it. Very few people have a home library anymore.

How long do you take to write a book?

Usually about six months. It takes another six months to get it to print. That time is spent editing. Re-working and fleshing it out. Time is spent on cover design, developing promotional materials, and descriptions of various lengths that you will use to promote the book.  The second six months is work. The first six months is pleasure. I often explain that writing a mystery is not much different from reading one. The truth is that most of the time I have no idea how the story will end and where the characters will take me next. You wake up anxious to get back to computer and discover how your character will get out the mess you put him or her in the night before.

What made you select mysteries as your genre?

As a businessman I traveled a lot.  Most of that was by plane. When I arrived at the airport, I would buy a book. Almost always, it was a mystery. I would get on the plane, open the book, and tune everything else out. One time I was flying from St. Louis back to Nashville on Piedmont — that airline doesn’t exist anymore. Suddenly, we were pulling up to the gate, and I hadn’t got very far in the book I was reading. I turned to my seatmate and said, “That was sure fast trip.”  He looked at me strangely and said, “Man where have you been? We taxied out to the runway and the engine fell off. We are returning to the gate.” Back to your question, I read so many mysteries during my travel days, that I just assumed I could write them as well as read them.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m seventy-six years old and didn’t start writing as a novelist until 2007 at sixty-seven. In the ten years since retiring from the business world, I have written six novels and two short non-fiction works. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in the shadow of Elvis’s Graceland Estate. I was active in school and community theater during my high school and undergraduate college days. I was actually the state champion in dramatic reading. I began my career in the commercial arena as a CPA with Price Waterhouse (now PwC) after earning a Master’s Degree from the University of Alabama in 1965, but left the CPA firm in 1968 to pursue the emerging business opportunity that followed IBM’s consent decree. That decree allowed the use of IBM computers for providing services. It was the birth of the information technology industry, making me one of the Tech industry’s pioneers. The London-based publication Citytech named me one of the Top 100 Global Tech Leaders and a visionary. I also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the US publication Law Technology News for my contribution to the use of technology in the legal community. Although now retired from the commercial world, I continue to write and speak on leadership as well as managing for excellence and pen my mystery series, Mark Rollins Adventures.

Your main character owns a fitness club for wealth women, why did you do that?

Think about other mystery series.  Sherlock had 221B Baker Street, Nero Wolfe had his orchid green house, and Batman has his bat cave. Sometimes it’s not a place. Columbo, for example, has his raincoat to hide behind. The Women Health Club is Mark Rollins’s bat cave. It is an absurd one, which makes it all together a perfect cover for Rollins’s high-tech crime fighting operation. But there is another more down to earth reason for the choice. I am a cancer survivor. After a major operation, my daughter became my personal trainer to help me rebuild my strength. At the time she was also an aerobics instructor at the Y in an upscale neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. As I worked out, she would tell me stories about people and events at the fitness facility. They were two good not use and they became the backdrop for by first Mark Rollins adventure, Mark Rollins New Career and the Women’s Health Club. The WH Club, remains the common thread throughout the series. In the back of my mind, I always thought that the club, filled with beautiful women, would make the series a compelling candidate for a TV program.